Developing 21st Century Skills Through Music


Playing in the Conductorless Orchestra Helped Students Develop Leadership and Communication Skills

Given the centrality of technology today, it is clear that engineering students will significantly shape our future. Yet they often lack the professional skillset to reach the greatest promise in their careers and as citizens.

“In general, the student engineer is not born an experienced team player or communicator, both of which are necessary for effective leadership,” says Diana Dabby, associate professor of Electrical Engineering and Music and music program director. In fact, research shows that engineering students often prefer solitary work and non-social environments. This is at odds with industry’s desire for professional skills that encompass leadership, teamwork, and communication in order to be able to manage multidisciplinary projects that demand the ability to navigate problem solving and ambiguity.

At Olin, opportunities for developing professional skills abound, from the foundational classes that underpin the structure of the Olin curriculum to official leadership development programs. And there are informal ways outside of the classroom for students to build and share leadership skills beyond technical fields, through extracurricular clubs and organizations.

A stand-out example of this kind of club is the Olin Conductorless Orchestra (OCO), where engineer-musicians develop and practice these sought-after professional skills in a large team environment while doing something they love—playing music. OCO is the oldest group at Olin and reflects our signature self-directed, project-based learning method, in which students operate the classroom, and the professors contribute as guides-on-the-side.


Why make it conductor-free?

Because the ensemble performs without a conductor, it puts a premium on these skills of teamwork, leadership, and communication in order to achieve a beautiful performance. An orchestra with no de facto leader exerts singular demands on students during rehearsals and concerts. In helping to run rehearsals, students develop soft skills in a large team environment, and practice them week-in and week-out. And the musicians must take initiative to diagnose problems, communicate possible solutions, and test/implement the discussed changes. In so doing, they build scaffolding for effective teamwork.

Each fall, the OCO passes through established stages: rehearsing and performing with new members getting used to the conductor-free orchestra experience, preparing pieces for its first concert, listening to recordings of that concert to improve performance for the second concert, and adding more pieces to its repertoire in advance of the Olin Expo. Then, in the spring, the orchestra learns a new repertoire and perfects the fall one, in preparation for three weeks of concerts for the Olin Candidate Weekends. Additional concerts take place off campus, such as performances at The Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City.

Learning from our successes and failures, OCO has evolved from year to year. Our process offers students a path to accessing new perspectives in their realm of thinking to diagnose and solve problems in a cooperative environment of shared leadership. To be successful, students have to:

  • Recognize when change is necessary

  • Encourage new and fresh ways of looking at problems

  • Initiate unconventional and innovative behavior


External impact

The OCO is the only conductorless orchestra made up of engineers—a statistic that, given the OCO’s benefits, Dabby and colleagues are working to change. “The fact that such a small school has successfully sustained a conductorless orchestra for 17 years speaks to the effective sustainability of the model for other institutions,” says Dabby.

Olin is introducing the conductorless orchestra model to other schools, such as at the American Society of Engineering Education Zone 1 Conference in Niagara Falls, New York. A second avenue is our website hub that will offer scaffolding, materials, and tools to support the conductorless orchestra model at other engineering schools. Much like we do with our Engineering for Humanity course materials, our online conductorless orchestra hub will offer resources to help other schools implement their own conductorless orchestras.

The hub will include organizational blueprints, practice strategies, rehearsal/ concert videos, and, eventually, partnership opportunities such as workshops/concerts involving OCO musicians in tandem with engineer-musicians at peer schools. “These will not only help emerging conductorless orchestras thrive, but also benefit students at participating schools by providing opportunities to meet and work with engineer-musicians at other institutions,” says Dabby.

Since Olin is a small school, the orchestra’s numbers vary between 12-24 players who often select repertoires composed for 90+ players. Dabby then re-orchestrates their selections to create the best group sound possible, given nonstandard instrumentation. As a result, a large library of 127 orchestral arrangements ranging from music by Bach to music from Game of Thrones exists that will also be accessible via the hub.


Professional skills and personal growth

Students report benefits from the OCO experience of messy problems, unpredictable situations, and self-managed teams. To do a good job, students must get better at teamwork and communicating with one another. Many say that OCO helped grow their understanding and personal development of teamwork and effective communication—two widely acknowledged traits of skilled leadership.

What’s more, humility and gratitude find particular resonance in a conductorless orchestra. “Without humility among its musicians, a conductorless orchestra cannot grow,” says Dabby. “An openness to learn from others provides fertile soil. Students get this. Each brings something to the table. They speak to audiences with gratitude—for the contributions of peers, for a concert well-played, and for music itself—the ‘balance,’ emotional release, and joy it gives.”


Watch the OCO perform Danzon No. 2 by Arturo Marquez.